Richard Mosse, Tristes Tropiques (Jack Shainman Gallery)

The title of the Irish photographer Richard Mosse’s most recent project, Tristes Tropiques, is borrowed from the memoirs of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, originally published in 1955 – a book about “insignificant happenings” and “trivial circumstances” that the anthropologist encountered in Brazil among the Caduveo, Bororo, Nambikwara, and Tupi-Kawahib. According to Mosse, quoted in the Guardian article referenced below, Lévi-Strauss’ journeys “were similar enough to some of my own, almost a century later, in terms of the axes he travelled along.”

Regardless of these similarities, Mosse’s work is certainly not about “insignificant happenings” and “trivial circumstances” as it documents the environmental catastrophe currently unfolding across Brazil: the establishment of huge cattle and soybean farming in what used to be tropical rain forest, the consequences of which go far beyond the area and the people directly affected.

Mostly attributable to human greed and settler-colonial ruthlessness, the “assault on the tropical forests has a long history” (Kenneth Maxwell) just as has the assault on the native population. “How,” Mosse wonders in the Guardian article, “can a modest camera tell such a hideously complex story that unfolds over many years, involving numerous processes that can often be very difficult to perceive in time and space? How can I find a lens wide enough?”

In order to facilitate perception, Mosse employs visual recording devices other than those photojournalists use, employing, his gallery suggests, camera technology “reflexively, as an artist and a storyteller, to create maps that yield a disarming, gestural aesthetic force, while revealing traces of these complex ecological narratives, at turns geopolitical, multinational, local and cultural.” 

Similar to earlier projects, his technological efforts are immense:

“Employing geographic interpretation system (GIS) technology, Mosse processed thousands of multispectral images captured above each site by drone to create searing maps that highlight areas of extractive environmental violence.” The resulting “topographic images show frangible organic matter dominated by extractive violence at the hand of man. The colors are electric, yet articulate highly detailed organic landscapes, revealing a highly vulnerable biome. The works are living maps that show signs of life, but also encapsulate forest dieback, tipping points and ecocide.”

The forms of visual politics Mosse utilizes are not specific to art. Scientists use multispectral imaging “to detect deforestation and ecological damage and pinpoint areas of concentrated CO2 release, toxic pollution and other aspects of damage to the fragile ecosystem.” However, “this powerful technology is also widely employed in agribusiness and mineralogy to more profitably exploit the environment.” It is this specific use of multispectral imaging that Mosse turns his camera against: he makes use of a powerful technology of image-making in order to criticize it and its consequences.

He did so, too, in earlier projects. For example, in a project on the politics of migration in Europe, Mosse criticized the use for political purposes of a specific technology of image-production – thermal cameras recording body heat – by using this technology himself and turning it against its intended purpose.

This is a risky strategy as it might reproduce that which it wishes to criticize: rather than resisting what this technology visualizes, this strategy might confirm it through a process of repetition and naturalization.  

Political art, at all times, also faces the notorious gap between an artist’s political ambition and the limited ways at his or her disposal to actualize it, and it always has to engage with photography’s tendency, observed by Walter Benjamin and others, to turn everything into an object of enjoyment.

Viewers exposed to Mosse’s images in the gallery or online should, therefore, try not to be blinded or overwhelmed by their scale or their beauty. Nor should they use the images solely for the purpose of aesthetic gratification. Indeed, critical engagement with Mosse’s recent work should include reflections upon the perennial question of the appropriateness of beauty in political art; the imperial tradition of aerial photography, revitalized by current drone technology; the absence of human beings from this work, including those most affected by the environmental damage documented in this photography; and the equally perennial question of the political potentialities of art that claims to be political. According to the artist (cited in the Guardian), “[f]or those of us who are earth-bound Europeans, our adventurings into the heart of the New World have a lesson to teach us” and this is one of the lessons Mosse’s images also teach us, namely, “that the New World was not ours to destroy, and yet we destroyed it; and that no other will be vouchsafed to us. In grasping these truths we come face to face with ourselves.” 

Until 15 May 2021, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Further Reading:
Rune Saugmann, Frank Möller and Rasmus Bellmer, “Seeing like a Surveillance Agency? Sensor Realism as Aesthetic Critique of Visual Data Governance,” Information, Communication & Society, published online 18 June 2020, Open Access, available here.

Jack Shainman Gallery, Richard Mosse: Tristes Tropiques
Daniel Milroy Maher, ‘They are living maps’: how Richard Mosse captured environmental damage in the Amazon, The Guardian online, April 6, 2021
Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (London: Penguin, 2011)
Kenneth Maxwell, Naked Tropics: Essays on Empire and Other Rogues (New York and London: Routledge, 2003)

Unattributed quotes are from the gallery’s press release.